I woke up today after an unsettled sleep. The events of the past week, and especially the past day, played heavily on my heart and soul and the power failure in the middle of the night played on my CPAP machine. The combination left me far from rested.
The good news, though, was that it is Sunday, and we had a day of rest. That is a good thing, as my mind and spirit needed that.
Our choices for worship were limited by how far we could walk. We opted for the Catholic Church, which was about 20 minutes away. Twenty dusty minutes on a road that has not seen rain in a long while. As we walked, we were joined by a little boy with a shirt but no pants. He had what appeared to be metal slivers protruding from his buttocks. I wanted to remove them but wasn’t sure how I could do that in that context.
The village where we are staying, Adjumani, is a typical rural village. There is no sewage system (the septic tank at our guest house is one of the only places around with toilets that flushes.) There is precious little electricity outside of a few places, like banks and hotels, and what is there is iffy at best.
The streets are lined with little shops that sell things out of bamboo built on some type of mud foundation. Occasionally, there is corrugated roof, but not too often. As you walk along, you see shoes or suitcases or bed frames or bikes or solar panels (the best source of energy) for sale.
The area has actually benefited from the influx of refugees. Many people get jobs with NGO’s like Save the Children or the Lutheran World Federation or work at places like the guest house where we are staying. As a result of these organizations, the city has more infrastructure, which is kind of shocking as it seems impossible to have less.
Joining John and me (Denise sprained her ankle and is resting) was our translator, Daniel. He was a Lost Boy in Sudan, fleeing his village as a child of 8 or 9, wandering alone with other boys to Ethiopia, where they were told they would get a wonderful home and a place to belong and arrived to find out they were being conscripted into the rebel army. Over the next years, he went through more horrors than I can possibly imagine, and that journey will be the focus of one of my future blogs because it is a story that needs telling.
For now, I will tell you that Daniel is a kind, gracious, intelligent and faithful person and when I wonder what is good in a world gone crazy, I will remember him. Because he has every reason to be bitter but he lives in hope.
We arrived at the church a little before the 10 a.m. service and entered. We left a little after 12:30 p.m. In between, we saw the Spirit of God alive in Africa.
The church was PACKED. And I mean packed. Our bench should have held six but there were 12 of us there. Every pew was filled, and people were spilling out the back. And by the way, the temperature outside was 105.
But inside, we were in full on praise mode. The service, which lasted 2½ hours, did not feel long at all. It made me realize what the Bible means when it says heaven will be about praise and we fill focus on God. Because if you focus on God, you can’t get bored.
And focus on God we did. The choir was astounding, the little girl dancers moved my heart, the nun exuded joy and the priest had a spirit of peace about him. And we sang — no hymnbooks were there. Most are illiterate. But they knew the songs — the Lord’s Prayer and Creed sung in chorus and verse — by heart.
The drums beat, the women ululated and everyone swayed, clapped and lifted their hands.
The Scripture for the day was the Beatitudes — Blessed are the Poor in Spirit. Well, they may have been poor, but not in spirit. And we were definitely blessed.
The sharing of the peace was especially fun. Little children came up to reach out their hands. Most spent the service staring at John and me — probably some of the first white people they had ever seen. They wanted to touch us. But we were the ones who were really touched.
After first offering, and then second offering — Africans have this tradition where everyone comes up for offering to place it in the basket, and they keep them going, depending on what they need the money for — the Eucharist was offered. Manna from heaven that sustains these people week upon week.
They are there, packed in a crowded and hot church filled with nothing but joy, because they fully rely on God to deal with the realities of a harsh life, and they know they need that sustenance.
Too often, I think we in America are spoiled in our faith and as a result, it loses its value for us. These people, and the pastors and women in the refugee village, understand joy because they understand that it is not about what we have —possessions or things — but about what God gives us, in terms of a promise to be present, to guide and to give us strength. As a result, their joy is deeper because it is built on a surer foundation — not lost in the material trappings but ensconced in a depth of spirit.
On our way out of worship I took out my phone and started to take photos. And suddenly, I was a magnet for kids. They were everywhere, looking to have their picture taken. After that, I would show them their photo, and they would laugh, smile and point. Simple pleasures.
Our afternoon was filled with some rest, some planning and typing up the laments the pastors had written out the previous day, which we planned to share the next day. I will share those laments in a separate post, but their power is palpable.
The thing that most people forget about refugees is that they don’t WANT to go to a new country. What they WANT to do is to go home. To go back to where they came from — their own village, with their own people.
We gave them the assignment to write laments because we wanted them to give words to their pain, an important task in trauma healing. And the phrase that became the refrain as I typed was “How long, O Lord, until we can return home.” That is the cry of their heart and the desire of their souls. They want to go home.
When I read about people saying that refugees should go back to where they came from, I suspect that those who say that with cruel hearts have no concept that the refugees share that same dream.
Sunday was a slow day — with worship, electricity that was out for most of the day and some tasks of preparation for the end of the day. When the electricity and Wi-Fi were on at the same time, I checked my phone with the usual trepidation as some kind of dystopian nightmare is unfolding at home.
In the midst of it, I feel torn between two worlds, seeing firsthand the plight of those who so desperately just want to go home and hearing of those who were trapped in airports on their way to what they thought was a new home. I can imagine nothing crueler than pulling the rug out from under someone who has suffered so much, when they were finally being given a chance at a new life — when all they really wanted but will never have is their old life back.
Lamentable indeed. I fell asleep with the cry of my heart joining those of my new friends in the camp who cried out, “How Long, O Lord” and my friends at home who are standing up and showing up and living out their faith in deliberate action as they join those cries in solidarity.